A Study in Schlock
The Charles River is frozen, and the view looking south from the Longfellow Bridge at night is incredible. The Boston skyline sparkles between the burnt lavender of the clouds and the ghostly layer of ice. Late on a weeknight, with barely any cars going by and nobody else walking the streets, there are few places more peaceful and lovely to be than halfway between Cambridge and Boston.
Unfortunately for MK and me, we continued walking into Boston to go see Sherlock Holmes. Despite a series of lukewarm, mildly negative reviews, we were smitten by the notion of Downey, Jr. and Jude Law going on a homoerotic detective romp through Victorian London. It was going to be loud, silly, and distasteful to a Holmes purist, but that was just the kind of fun we were looking to have on Monday night.
We probably should have just admired the skyline for two hours, then gone home once frostbite claimed our toes.
In the first place, Sherlock Holmes is an impressively ugly movie. Not content with maximizing the grit and grime of Victorian London, Ritchie also aims for graininess. Entire scenes look like they were filmed with a webcam. This is Mr. Ritchie’s style, of course, but here it begins to feel less like a style and more like evidence that he lacks one. He knows how to make a movie about ugly English thugs beating the shit out of each other in sewage-colored rooms, and he just keeps on making it.
The difference this time is that one of those English thugs is Sherlock Holmes, but it’s Holmes by way of a Judd Apatow production. It’s Sherlock Holmes and the Pineapple Express. Holmes and Watson are arrested adolescents who live in a criminology frat house, with Mrs. Hudson reduced to the role of ineffectual den mother. Holmes and Watson smirk and flirt at each other, Watson holds Holmes’ hair out of the toilet when he gets too trashed, and Holmes reminds Watson of their bros-before-hoes code when the latter is in danger of getting married and catching a potentially lethal case of cooties.
But let us not forget that Holmes is a great detective! You can tell because in the film’s first scene, Holmes deduces that shattering a dude’s eardrum, then breaking his leg at the knee will, as a matter of elementary logic, fuck that guy up. Case closed! But, will Holmes be able to solve the diabolical Mystery of the Even Bigger Goon later in the film?
There is, of course, a detective story of sorts in this film. Lord Blackthorn is hanged for the murders of several people around London, but no sooner has he been buried than he apparently rises from the dead and starts an unlife of crime. All of this is part of a plan to seize control of Parliament and conquer the world, a task that apparently requires nothing more than a strong ministry in Whitehall.
Knowing all this, would you be astonished to learn that Blackthorn is not really an adversary worthy of Sherlock Holmes? Not that I expected a great battle of wits from a Guy Ritchie movie, but this is like turning Sherlock Holmes loose against the magician at second-grader’s birthday party. Except that would have comedy value, while unmasking Blackthorn’s plot means enduring endless scenes of cut-rate Masons performing boring rituals and giving dire warnings about all the dark, uncontrollable forces Blackthorn is unleashing with his powers.
And that really brings us to central problem of this film: it’s just not very much fun, and a movie as stupid as this needs to be fun. The pro forma tension between Holmes and Watson over Watson’s impending engagement just serves to bring the movie down, along with the boring machinations of the villain, the endless fist fighting, and Moriarty’s momentum-killing cameos. Downey, Jr.’s Holmes and Law’s Watson never really get a chance to play off one another, which is a key element of a good bromantic comedy. With the exception of a few childish establishing scenes, they spend most of the movie either apart, in silence, or brawling side by side.
There is exactly one scene in this movie that really worked. Watson has forced Holmes to come dine with him and his soon-to-be fiancee, but Holmes has arrived at the restaurant too early. As he sits there, the camera catches his eyes as they start to dart around the room. We see his view as he scans the crowd, picking up a cacophony of details and evidence of minor crimes and betrayals. The crowd noise swells to a roar of conversation fragments and sounds.
Next, Holmes shove himself back into his booth, eyes tightly closed and hands pressing against his face. This is obviously a recurring problem, a condition with which he has never come to terms. We see evidence of this as Watson and his fiancee arrive to join him, and she makes the mistake of asking Holmes what he can deduce about her.
What happens next is a slow-motion train wreck. Holmes can’t stop himself from going too far, from telling her too much about herself, and from being cruel out of a misguided protectiveness of Watson. She leaves in a fury, and Watson just looks at Holmes with a mixture of pity and disappointment. It’s the lack of anger that’s the most hurtful thing to Holmes, because it’s clear just how much Watson views Holmes as his sick, broken friend. Holmes just looks back at Watson with a mixture of sheepish defiance, sorry and ashamed but constitutionally incapable of apologizing. It is a pity we never get to see the rest of that movie.